The Voice of the Heart

Listening to the voice of my heart has never come easy for me. I’m usually quick to assume a present feeling is final, an agony is forever, or that all of my questions should have answers and answers NOW. Yet, I know better. And, the more I grow through those fleeting assumptions–the more I find myself truly pausing and listening to the utterances of my heart–the more I’m truly in touch with those parts of myself that so softly speak my own truth.

…Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final…” Rilke, Book of Hours I, 59

I’ve found sacred pauses to buoy up my ability to hear those quiet whispers of myself: from going to monasteries, to turning off my car radio, and even truly sitting still in order to tend to “nothing”. Most recently, I returned from my second visit to Snowmass Monastery in Colorado where through the solitude and silence I was once again brought face to face with that interior whisper of who I am. Though the clarity is never striking or certain, it seems to offer a meeting place with the great unknowns and mysteries that somehow always know more, if even unspoken.

On this occasion to Snowmass Monastery, I arrived for more than just a notation on pilgrimage or for space and time away. I was attending the solemn profession of monastic vows that my friend, Brother Aaron, was about to take. He’d been a monk now for nearly eight years and was ready to make his vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of manners (Trappist/Cistercian Monastic vows*). Though I hadn’t seen him for nearly three and a half years, we’d been in touch via letters nearly every week since our initial meeting in 2013.

Much like all of my monastic trips, I settled in and rested for a moment before taking a familiar saunter into the church and meander around the accessible monastic grounds. Snowmass Monastery’s bookstore was a special stop for me to make, as it was where I’d met Brother Aaron nearly three and a half years ago. There, I sat on a bench, admired the new collection of poetry, and breathed in the beginning of a precious friendship, a sacred space of growth, and a familiarity with knowing I’m right where I should be in this very moment.

Just as I began making my way out of the store, a strangely familiar yet unrecognizable voice called out from the lawn near the bookstore, “Cassidy?” It could only be one person, someone that could know me so well to know my demeanor and recognize me by way of just that. Sure enough, it was Brother Aaron, and I finally received the true to word sign-off on each of his letters, “Big Hug”.

As we made our way back towards the guesthouse, we talked about all the friends and family pouring in from all over the map to see him on his special day. He spoke about how he was deeply moved by this and joyfully overwhelmed with all the love he was encountering. He explored with me the meaning of his choice in vocation, his decision to move forward with vows, and his sense of overflowing love with all those from his life who had come together for this important day. He told me that it seemed, “the closer I get to love in my own heart, the closer love comes to me.” That as he continued to be true and loving towards himself and love in his own life: his calling, his vocation, his personal truth–the overwhelming way in which love came to him left him speechless.

These profound words fastened to my attention throughout my time there and beyond – two weeks later they’re still searing into my being in a way that elevates my curiosity of what it really means to be true to oneself and one’s calling or vocation in life. How can one listen and be true to the heart’s quiet breathings, loud speakings, and miscellaneous messages in-between?

This dear monk has taught me time and time again of the great love we’re all capable of giving and receiving in our own unique ways and through our own unique vocations, but coming around to what that means for me certainly continues to evolve, as it does for each individual. Seeing his world come together in a way that renewed and fortified his own view on this was wondrous. As he was following his truth, listening to his call, exploring his heart – love flowed in from around the world for him, literally and figuratively.

Needless to say, I won’t soon forget seeing the solemn profession of monastic vows by my dear friend Brother Aaron. I can only hope to continue to strive towards those sacred pauses that continue to be a meeting place with the voice of my heart.

tree.png
Temescal Gateway Park, photo by Cassidy Hall

_________________________________________________________________

*For more about Cistercian Spirituality, check out author Carl McColman’s Befriending Silence.

The Great Anesthetic of Modern Day Life

(Originally posted on The Huffington Post Blog.)

“The world is like an anesthetic… people are not going beyond the superficial to the meaning of life — they don’t even ask that question because they’re caught up in that anesthetizing process.” A Monk of Holy Trinity Abbey, Utah

I woke up this morning with an overwhelming feeling of being so distant from my own self. While in the midst of a frenzied work month, drained by piles of to-dos, and in an echo-chamber of my own mind; I seem to have lost touch with the precise thing that brought me here. I’m waking up for a city’s premiere of a documentary film I’ve been working on titled In Pursuit of Silence, and yet, I’ve managed to lose touch with my own silence, space, and solitude. I’ve become the precise paradox our film opens our eyes to; I’ve forgotten myself, my own way of being, and the natural spaces around me. Like an anesthetic fog just after surgery, I’ve been going through my days clouded by the demands of modern day life.

 

Anesthesia seems to be an ideal sentiment for describing the world we live in today. We’re consumed by our phones, computers, televisions, technology, work, and busyness itself. So much so that there’s nothing left of us for the solitude, space, and silence for which we were designed. Our days are so marked by modern day life’s measurements of likes, comments, and first place ribbons of who has the most emails — that we come to the day’s end without the depth of sensations we were created to have. Even our allegiance to the word busy seems to fill our mouths like a badge of honor. Our society tells us only a busy life is a successful and productive life, while research and studies continue to quietly tell us otherwise. There’s an undertone that busy is a title, a symbol we’re doing life right, a life worth living — but what if it’s precisely this busy that anesthetizes us from living a genuine life of meaning, a memorable day, and a life true to who we were made to be?

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

Spreading ourselves too thin is now the law of the land; we insist we’re no longer good enough or doing enough for the people and world around us unless we’re giving more than what we have. And, as we watch our unique passions, desires, and hopes float away — we decide it’s time to take on even more. We cover our original design with layers of modern day life; we convince ourselves that losing ourselves is loving others more. And still, our purest and richest (in love and joy) selves come out in those moments when we’re true to who we are — listening to our creative urges in work and play, saying a hearty yes or empowering no to those around us, and being able to truly interact with our loved ones from a space of wholeness.

“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” Hermann Hesse

For some of us, remaining busy is a way to feel sane — to keep us running from what is really going on, to avoid the truth of ourselves. But, what if the truth is actually an easier space to navigate? What if our true selves contain a space where we can see and feel more whole again — perhaps the real world we need to explore is not the world of to-dos and sensory overload but the vast interior world of ourselves. Maybe it’s time to turn off excerpts of our anesthetizing days so that we might feel again, recenter ourselves again, and re-engage with our natural equilibrium.

 

It seems that even when those small spaces peek up within our days, there is never enough time. Sleep is more important (it often is), my phone is more vibrant, those emails will just add up, and between all the day’s tasks the breaks to breathe are just that — how could anyone expect us to do more than breathe in such moments? And we know that we’re all so beautifully different in these realms: the ways in which we balance ourselves, the different rhythms that agree with us, and what makes sense for each of our lives. Thus, it’s all the more important to tune into our personal ways of being and trust that natural rhythm as we go about our days. The anesthetic fog will come again and again, because it is a part of modern day life — but there’s choice for us somewhere to see beyond that, through that, and let the fog lift.

“At the still point, there the dance is.” T.S. Eliot

Slowing Down to Listen

cropped-img_5260.jpg Just a couple of months ago, in November of 2014, I was on a work trip in New York City. Naturally, and true to New York City, my days were filled with travel, organizing, preparing, and little to no down time. While I was there, my friend Bill called and left a voicemail on a Sunday and I didn’t get around to checking it until the following Tuesday.

“This is Bill Rice calling, probably for the last time. Because I’m going to go into hospice where you actually die…” Bill said in his voicemail, “I hope to die on our lady’s immaculate conception, which is tomorrow. And so I’m saying goodbye to you. I love you and you’ve been a wonderful person in my life…”

My heart sank. Was I too busy to check this sooner, too rushed to consider someone who was sick, too occupied to think of someone other than myself when I sat down alone? I immediately panicked and in the midst of my workday called Bill’s cell phone — selfishly hoping and praying that he might answer and still be alive. When he didn’t answer I couldn’t even begin to rationalize my busyness as more important than a loving goodbye. I fretted over the fact that I didn’t slow down enough for something like this, someone so important to me, and remembered that maybe this was a reminder to slow down and listen. I tried calling again about an hour later and he answered. Our talk was understandably a mix of foggy and lucid conversation about our friendship, about what he meant to me over the past 2 years, and even about how he was feeling about dying. We ended that conversation with a love filled goodbye and the hopes of talking again. Bill was 82 and he had cancer; a cancer so severe he was told numerous times that he had months to live, only to survive those months by years. Finding Bill’s obituary was no surprise to me. It was Monday the 5th of January 2015, and I hadn’t heard anything for some time, so I looked for his name on the Internet. There it was, Bill Rice, died on December 17th, 2014. The surprise came while reading his obituary which was filled with facts of where he went to school, what he did for work, who he is survived by, and so on. To me, there was little reminder there of who Bill was as opposed to what Bill did. Bill Rice and I met in 2013 while we were both on retreat at a monastery in Utah. He was then an 80 year old man whose life consisted of volunteering and yearly retreats to this monastery and I was then a 29 year old woman whose life was in the midst of an undeniable turning point. Bill introduced himself to me when he noticed me amongst the empty pews at a prayer service one evening. What began that first day as friendly surface oriented banter about being on retreat turned into sharing beers on the front lawn of the church. I’ll never forget those plastic chairs we fetched and gathered on the lawn which was painted with fallen leaves. Nor will I forget our conversation that covered topics such as work, death and dying, doubt, questions, and spirituality. Gradually, Bill and I began writing letters to one another; he’d recount from time to time the amount of letters I’d sent him. He told me on numerous occasions that he considered himself a surrogate grandfather of sorts, which I gladly accepted as both of my grandfathers had died prior to my birth. IMG_7839 Bill had never married, had no children, and nearly became a monk in his earlier days. When we discussed why he chose to not become a monk, I recall him saying something to the effect of ‘I couldn’t handle the not talking.‘ This didn’t surprise me one bit as Bill could always be found talking to someone; He seemed to know no strangers. His dedication to Catholicism struck me, perhaps as much as my not being Catholic struck him – I received numerous letters from him with remarks about his not understanding why a woman like myself would travel to all these Catholic monasteries and not be Catholic. I recall a few precious letters when I was entrusted with some of the questions he had regarding this life, the mysteries we all face, and the questions we all dance with for a lifetime. I had no answers for him other than my support, my listening, and my willingness to accompany him in those questions and mysteries. Through our letters we continued to discuss these mysteries, sharing that perhaps part of our craving of the mysteries is that they remain unknown and that very paradox creates a greater awe. After I spoke with him from New York, Bill and I never had the chance to talk again on earth. True to Bill’s legacy, he came into my life with questions and openness, and he left me with an abundance of reminders. He reminded me the importance to staying in touch – even if it means sitting down and taking the time to write a hand-written letter (not everyone emails). He reminded me the importance of questioning things until the day I die – even if it means I’ll never know the answers (it’s comforting to be reminded we aren’t alone in our questions). He reminded me the importance of staying faithful – in friendships, in love, in spirituality. I knew I disagreed with Bill, on numerous things, but greater than that, I believe we knew one another’s hearts and intentions; this is friendship. Our disagreements didn’t deter or diminish my love for Bill – instead I was challenged by the idea of thinking of things in new ways, presenting thoughts in new capacities, and ultimately landing on the truth that our friendship and the love we shared was greater than disagreements. He reminded me that I’m never too busy to share a beer on an empty lawn outside a church. He reminded me to never be too busy for another person. He reminded me to slow down and listen. In the end, how would Bill want to be remembered? Probably a lot like the way his obituary read in terms of relationships and the people in his life. Although, in remaining true to Bill, I’m certain he’d scatter and mention friends, acquaintances, and those people he had passed by briefly that we’d typically assume to be forgettable. Bill never met a forgettable person. If you knew or were friends with Bill, you probably knew of at least one of his other friends or acquaintances. And perhaps that’s the most important lesson I take from this man: there are no forgettable people; there is no forgettable person. I only knew Bill for about 2 years and the culmination of his kindness, generosity, openness, and love, accounted for a lifetime with a surrogate grandfather. True to how our friendship began: cheers, Bill. IMG_8975 *Posted on my HuffPost Blog Here

Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey

Guadalupe Abbey is amid the valleys of wine country in Oregon, just southwest of Portland and inland from the brilliant Oregon coastline. Appropriately so, the abbey grounds were in full bloom for Easter weekend, and the forest that rested in the background was aglow. I wasn’t sure what to expect at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, but I was certain it would feel like home just as every other Abbey has.

Part of me has been avoiding writing this for numerous reasons: 1. It reiterates that this journey is complete. 2. It heightens my awareness of the false need of the next step. 3. As if the world wasn’t loud enough, it reminds me I’m back ‘in’ and ‘a part’ of it – which results in the only thing heard is ‘what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’

“Sometimes you just have to stop and look. Then you can see the mystery.”

This was said to me numerous times over the course of Easter weekend as I grappled with knowing this was my final stop on the pilgrimage and was bouncing between anxiety and peace over this precise thing.

It’s always been interesting to me that somehow some of the most clear things in ones life are filled with those precise contradictions: anxiety (for others maybe fear) alongside an extreme peace and sense of knowing. While it’s obvious that these things are born of the risk typically involved in such events – if it’s clear, why do we hesitate, stutter step, and practically lead ourselves stumbling towards what we know?  What is it about arriving at our goal on the floor that reassures it as the right thing – or what is it about the process to arrive that makes us unnecessarily bask in the pain?

There’s something about challenge that I wallow in, as if it’s a safe space. I’ve often seen myself as someone that starts numerous things and doesn’t finish anything, or someone that runs with things get hard, or someone that turns at the slightest glimpse of difficulty. This pilgrimage showed me both that I can finish things, and I can stick to things when they get hard. I’m still approached and asked how my ‘vacation’ was – the true work of the heart is the hardest of all – there are no breaks or pauses when one is working through and discovering who they really are (which we all know is also a never ending job each of us can choose to avoid or work through on any given day).

So, I’m sure we’re all wondering what this means: what I learned, what’s the outcome, where are the results, who am I, how did I grow,  … now what?

I can only say with great confidence and slight ease – I don’t know. While all of this resulted in more questions than answers, it also showed me more of who I am – both the good and the bad. The things that come up in my heart and mind when all else is silent, the noise of who I am and the whispers of who I long to be.

“Sometimes you have to stop and look. Then you can see the mystery.”

By definition, mystery remains unknown – impossible to understand or explain, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be seen, felt, heard, tasted, touched, or seen. With that being said, I’ve unveiled nothing but I’ve finally sensed the most true and pure mysteries this world has to offer. Not because these things can only be sensed in silence or at monasteries – but because that is what I needed in order to sense these things.

_________________________________________________________________________

“We are so impressed by scientific clank that we feel we ought not to say that the sunflower turns because it knows where the sun is. It is almost second nature to us to prefer explanations . . . with a large vocabulary. We are much more comfortable when we are assured that the sunflower turns because it is heliotropic. The trouble with that kind of talk is that it tempts us to think that we know what the sunflower is up to. But we don’t. The sunflower is a mystery, just as every single thing in the universe is.” Robert Farrer Capon

“All is mystery; but he is a slave who will not struggle to penetrate the dark veil.” Benjamin Disraeli

“No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?” Annie Dillard

Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey

Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey

Abbey of Gethsemani • Trappist, KY

The Abbey of Gethsemani was the first monastery I have ever traveled to, so there was something delightful about returning to ‘where it all began.’ While I now sense a greater home at New Melleray (due to my more frequent stays and being from Iowa), I’m still so thankful and reverent of the introduction to the monastic life that Gethsemani gave me.

Gethsemani is the oldest of the Trappist monasteries in the US – founded in December of 1848 and made an abbey in 1851. For most, Gethsemani may be most well known for being the home of Thomas Merton. While that is what initially led me to a Trappist monastery (Thomas Merton’s writings), that is certainly not what has carried me through this continued vision and eventual pilgrimage. It’s more as if the readings of Thomas Merton planted a seed which grew into question after question, which finally led to this pilgrimage (which in turn has led to even more questions).

While my last post possibly seemed to oversimplify the life of the monastic experience, I think it’s important to re instill the concept that potency is found in simplicity, that depth is only where there’s a surface, that pain and darkness reside with those who are willing to feel/deal/experience them; allowing for the contrast of the greatest healing and greatest light.

It’d be easy to say that the life of a monk or nun is simple – that they go about their day in perfect harmony in community, prayer, work, etc. It’s nearly a fantasy of the world that this is the case. But it’s important to note that each monk or nun is not immune to the experiences of those without a monastic or even religious vocation.

A monk at a previous location said to me, “to really say yes to God, you see your limitations are not depriving you.” In other words, how are my pains, frustrations, uncontrollables creating me to be more of a service to others, and ultimately God? While the frequent Biblical reference here may be to that of Paul discussing the ‘thorn in his side’ (2nd Corinthians 12:7), it may be more familiar language for me to discuss the implications of depression, death, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, pain, uncertainty, etc.  Is it ‘just’ the humility of owning our limitations or is it more than that?

To me, it’s more than that. None of us want to be entirely alone. Our limitations are not only connections but also connections that practically force humility and vulnerability.  While my initial reaction to these limitations are to hide them and myself, I realize that without these vulnerabilities, I’d certainly have a tendency to isolate (even more), to hide (even more), to run away (even more), to disappear (even more), etc. With these vulnerabilities, I have a lean towards desperation and need of connection, to know I’m not alone, to know there is healing, to know there is better, to know there is light.

I was so blessed to meet with a monk who seemed to fully understand what I said when I told him, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, why I’m doing this, but I know I’m supposed to be.”  When we see the ‘supposed to,’ or the ‘meant to,’ or the ‘made for this,’ isn’t that a glimpse of light to grasp onto and continue with? Doesn’t that allow us to overlook the anguish, the pains, the loneliness, the desires, the temptations, and the distractions? With that being said, is it only when we embrace our limitations and vulnerabilities that we are able to more fully become who we are meant to be? It’s much easier for me to continue in this pilgrimage with the acknowledgement that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know I’m meant to be doing this.

“…Fundamentally, as Max Picard points out, it probably comes to this: living in a silence which so reconciles the contradictions within us that, although they remain within us, they cease to be a problem. (of Word of Silence, P. 66-67.) … Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.” Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude

Mepkin Abbey • Moncks Corner, SC

Mepkin Abbey is a very lush area in South Carolina. The beauty of the land was undeniable, before even knowing about the various gardens, dedicated grounds, and even labyrinth located on the monastic grounds. Unfortunately, I spent a short time at Mepkin, but still felt extraordinarily welcomed, loved, humbled, and honored to experience this monastery.

What I learned? That perhaps the ability to look at things more concisely may be a gift as opposed to a hindrance. Or maybe that viewing things less loosely and more blatantly: is this “coincidence or providence?” is this a “trip or a pilgrimage?” allows one to fully engage in a focal point in order to put their energies (or even lack thereof) towards something that is beyond themselves. It seems as though the less I understand things, the more potent they are to me. This, however, appears to accompany the daunting ability of letting go of my need for control in knowledge, knowing, decisions, etc.

I suppose part of me doesn’t want to declare such language because it seems to rein me in. But, what if it frees me to fully engage in that which I am meant to be, meant to explore, meant to do, meant to see? A friend of mine reminded me that perhaps freeing ourselves from the need of semantics (easier said than done) perhaps allows for letting go in an experience, ultimately allowing one to be more present and mindful.

I’ve found lately that having language for particular experiences has been helpful, however, some experiences require no language. What is it about the human experience that makes me think/assume I need to tie it to words? A word I’ve recently been introduced to is Acedia (according to my Apple dictionary: noun spiritual or mental sloth; apathy (which, to me, may minimize the word’s depth and affect)).  Coming from the mental health perspective, this word has been especially enlightening – a word that is far different from depression, but almost mockingly mimics it. It seems as though I have mistaken some bouts of depression in my life for the experience of acedia (which has also been referenced as the ‘noonday demon’*)

What is it in life that makes us (me especially) complicate things with words? For me, I have found words often necessary for human connection and interaction. Meanwhile, I have also found some of my most potent human connections to be in the midst of silence and knowing. Yet, I assume, how can I know without words being assigned to feelings or actions, or how can I feel without assigning words to knowing?

Another question that came up is the idea of  “do you access something by self limits?”

This seemingly radical thought may be of disgust to some, but it intrigued me. What if I am able to access more by self-limits, able to be more of who I am meant to be by self-limits, able to grow and learn and challenge myself in self-limits? There is certainly a lost art to self-control in our society these days (this includes myself). While we’re quite attune to those self-control motions that ‘appear’ and ‘show’ to others (i.e. working out, eating right, clothing), why aren’t we (or maybe I am just speaking for myself) more involved in those eternal aspects of our being regarding self-control? Why is it more important for one to say they meditated or prayed than their actual meditation or prayer experience? Why is it more important for one to say they gave a homeless person a piece of bread rather than to quietly experience the community with another brother or sister of humanity?

Clearly, my time at Mepkin was illuminating towards a more simple way of thinking and living. That honing ourselves in to words, ways of life, people, jobs, choices, directions, and feelings – may be more fulfilling and opening than depleting and closing.

*Evagrius’ (345-399 AD) depiction and description of acedia, the noonday demon:

“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon [Ps 90:6 LXX]—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.”

Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), pp. 18-9.

Some of Kathleen Norris’ Q&A on her book and the topic of acedia:

http://www.us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/specialinterests/religion/2008/acediame-norris.html

Holy Spirit Abbey • Conyers, GA

A trip that began with humility, upon arriving a day early late at night and being welcomed by a monk, ended with extreme elation, in being able to meet with several monks regarding the topics I had hoped to discuss.

Going from Assumption Abbey to Holy Spirit Abbey may be an extreme contrast – but not in terms of good to bad or holy to unholy. The contrast these two locations held seemed to be more about style and variety. Both Abbey’s had the dedicated core and clarity of the monastic life (often most described as: prayer, silence, solitude, work, and community).

Holy Spirit Abbey has an intriguing history, which is clearly described in their museum. Once a former plantation, the monastery land was taken over by the Trappist monks in 1944. I was greeted in the museum by one of the founding members, who is now 101 years old, still working, still praying, still engaging in silence and solitude, still joyfully asserting his commitment to this community.

The main thing I received from my conversations here was this: Aloneness, solitude, and silence are NOT isolation. When these monks seek time away or time alone, they still have the foundation of their brothers (or sisters) and community to rest assured upon.

Which makes me wonder – perhaps it was isolation in my life that led me to this trip and need of aloneness and solitude. In this journey, I’ve already felt more connection and depth with others than I have for quite some time. Maybe amongst people I isolate more frequently and define it as solitude? I’ve always said that just because one may be in a full home, surrounded by people, socializing – does not mean they don’t experience true and genuine loneliness. Which, I suppose, adds another point – aloneness is not necessarily loneliness.

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.” Thomas Merton

Assumption Abbey • Ava, MO

It’s interesting how complacency draws us away from a place or position. I’ve found in my own life that complacency can be a friend or an enemy (in which case my lack of contentment may not be due to complacency — ugh, semantics). I often wonder and look back on times in which what I thought was complacency was quite simply me hitting something like ‘the wall’ in a long run or on the brink of something great but unsure I want/deserve/desire it, etc. I’ve been continually struck that I’m doing the right thing, but feel so aimless in my approach. Because of this, I’ve been humbled, and asking (more importantly hearing) the advice of monks, strangers, and friends. My vulnerabilities in asking and sharing, have only deepened my sense of community and oneness with each person I’ve been lucky enough to speak with.

I found a new home at Assumption Abbey – the smallest of the monasteries I have been to so far, where an older member of the community wheels in your meals and you sit around the table with your new (at least for that night or day) family.

This journey has begun with much uncertainty alongside much clarity. It seems as though I’m doing what I was made for in the midst of not knowing what I’m doing. Luckily, I have been able to voice this with fellow retreatants and monks, only to be reaffirmed in my clarity with still no clear guide as to how.

Assumption Abbey is a smaller population of monks, rich in hospitality and love. I was able to meet with a monk the day I left, in order to discuss the following topics: silence, solitude, contemplation, and any wisdom for my journey. While other topics naturally came up, it seems as though these are the ones to discuss with each of those I am able to meet with.

The main thing I received from my conversation here was this: There is a monk in each of us. Each of us is naturally drawn to God because we were created in God’s image… Another thing that was said to me by someone to further instill this concept: “God created the world, alone.” (Clearly we all may have varying thoughts and/or opinions on this but it implies the idea that we may be drawn to aloneness because it is an innate part of God and therefore (being created in the image of God) an innate part of us).

What in the world did this mean to me? First, it’s important to note what in the world ‘monk’ even means… basically it means ‘single,’ ‘solitary,’ ‘alone.’ There is nothing new about this desire to seek solitude as this concept dates back to the 3rd century when the desert fathers and desert mothers began seeking God in the desert (eventually this led to desert communities which were informal gatherings of these hermits, which further in turn led to monasteries and the monastic way of life). So, does that all mean – how can one ‘follow God’ while being in the desert alone? That is where the beauty of contradictions comes in to play (something I’m becoming well acquainted with). It’s hard for us to imagine that by disengaging, we can better engage – or that by withdrawing, we can better serve or help or love others. The way in which we love others best can only be discovered by being our true selves. For some, being their true self means ‘going to the desert,’ while for others being their true self may mean the exact opposite. I’ve encountered the undeniable conviction of both monks and nuns that by their pursuit of this life (or rather, acceptance) they are loving others the most. This has been described to me in numerous ways, but there very clearly seems to be a common certainty that their choice (which often times is a continual choice, as things are for most of us) is the most exhaustively loving choice for their lives.

***PLEASE forgive my terribly muddled and ridiculously brief synopsis of the monastic history – I’m certain I have gotten some things wrong and POSITIVE I have left out countless (and very important) details.

“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.” Henri Nouwen

“The desert may be understood on several different levels. The actual Egyptian desert to which these monks fled in the fourth and fifth centuries was, of course, and actual place. But the desert may also be understood as an inner geography of desolation and abandonment; it is the place, perhaps even in the midst of others, where we are the most alone. It is the valley of our deepest solitude. Father John tells us that anyone who has experienced some aspect of destered-ness, loneliness, brokenness, breakdown or break-up — whether emotional, physically or socially — will connect with the profound humanity of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.” Barry McDonald in the preface to In The Heart of The Desert, The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers By John Chryssavgis